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Review: What a Courtesan Wants

What a Courtesan Wants audiobook cover. A handsome black man in an open shirt and waistcoat in a Regency boudoir.What a Courtesan Wants by Victoria Vale.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 9 hrs 40 mins.
🔥 Steamy content! 🔥

Bennet Sisters Scale: Kitty 🌹🌹🌹 - This book is not a Kitty because it lacks character, but simply because there's a little bit of everything in this story, and - just like Kitty - Lucinda only truly comes into her own with the right encouragement.

Tropes: #Widow, #POC/Interracial, #OppositesAttract, #EmployerEmployee

What a Courtesan Wants, Gentlemen Courtesans, Book 2 by Victoria Vale is the stern and explicitly-steamy Regency tale of two people from very different sides of the tracks, who may just be exactly what the other needs. When Lucinda's husband dies she not only loses her Lord but her Master. Can trained Dominant, Aubrey, really fill the hole that Magnus left behind?

Audible Summary: "Lady Lucinda Bowery has decided to cast off mourning attire and begin moving on from the loss of her husband. Hiring the gentleman courtesan known as an experienced dominant seems like just the thing to propel her out of bereavement and back to life. She intends for him to give her pleasure and, perhaps, help her find a bit of the woman she was before being widowed.

Aubrey Drake became a courtesan to help bolster his expanding business as well as provide a trousseau and dowry for his ward. Over time, he has grown bored catering to women who only see him as an exotic offering to be enjoyed temporarily and then discarded. Thus, the thrill of mastering a submissive bedmate has lost its luster, leaving him cold. 

When Lady Bowery is suggested as his new keeper, he expects to be as apathetic toward her as all the others. But, when sparks fly at their first meeting, Aubrey becomes determined to master Lucinda in every way possible, even though she seems intent on keeping him at arm’s length.

As she finds comfort and pleasure with her new courtesan, Lucinda finds it increasingly difficult to deny that what she feels for him goes beyond simple lust. Yet, embracing the possibility of a future with him means letting go of her past. Aubrey is determined to win Lucinda’s heart, but she still clings to the memory of her first husband.

©2019 Victoria Vale (P)2020 Victoria Vale."

Content Warning: This audiobook contains references to child loss which some listeners may find upsetting.

When we first meet Lucinda she is determined to try and recapture a little of the spirit that deserted her after her husband's passing, and once at Lady Dane's townhouse, Benedict entices Lucinda to peruse Aubrey's wares most tantalisingly. As his suitability for her was discussed, Vale made a healthy point about a proper D/s relationship requiring a Dominant who is trained in his (or her) arts and understands the difference between taking control of a submissive and being controlling or coercive. Both Lucinda and Aubrey are experienced within the scene, such as it was, and they have each trained with an experienced Master. This informed consent allows the listener to fully engage with their steamy affair, without the discomfort of dubious consent.

During the night of debauchery in Half Moon Street where Lucinda selects her Gentleman Courtesan, the author describes one of the scandalous parlour games as "Blind Man's Bluff". The literal 'name of the game' is etymologically interesting, as it was historically known as 'Blind Man's Buff', or 'Dead Man's Buff', where 'buff' was used in its original sense of a little shove or push. (Think also of 'rebuff', meaning to reject or deflect.) Over time, as we have come to use 'buff' more to describe a polishing action or the subject of our admiration, the traditional name has corrupted and is now often found as 'bluff'. As late as the Victorian era it was still recorded as 'buff' or 'buffe', though, so Aubrey may have been a little ahead of his time in referring to it as "Blind Man's Bluff".

Of greater salacious interest is, of course, the evening's other scandalous delight; the notorious game of Hot Cockles, wherein one player would kneel on all fours and bury their head in the lap of another while trying to guess who kicked, slapped, or paddled their behind. The game came out of the French court and was even painted by Jean Honoré Fragonard in his 1775 - 1780 piece, A Game of Hot Cockles. It was while looking up a link to the painting to include for you here that I discovered Fragonard also painted a larger work called Blind Man's Buff , which again supports the introduction of that sneaky 'L' as a later phenomenon.

BBC4 filmed a game of Hot Cockles for Waldemar Januszczak's programme, Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness in 2014 if you want a better idea of the required positions.

Though What a Courtesan Wants was ostensibly about the relationship that developed between Lucinda and Aubrey, it was also a farewell to the man she had married. I adored Lucinda's reminiscences of her husband; the depth of her love for him and the impenetrable loss he left in his wake. Too often the late husbands of Regency widows are little more than a plot device that grants them the freedom of independent means, and her story was richer and more engaging because she had known unconditional love before, and her torment came from its absence.

I also enjoyed the departure from the historical 'norm' that we saw in Aubrey Drake. I really liked the way that Aubrey's frustration with his profession mirrored that of many modern sex workers. Not only had he become increasingly uncomfortable with the commodification of his very person, but he also had to cope with having his ethnicity fetishised by rich, powerful women who passed him around like an exotic pet. These themes are not at all unfamiliar in our own age, but even now it is unusual to hear about the experience from the male perspective.

Despite his dissatisfaction with the work as a Courtesan, it was nice to see a man with African heritage in a historical who does not have firsthand experience of slavery, despite a moving reference to the nearness of its influence upon him. Historical fiction has neglected the diversity of the British Isles for far too long, and the romance genre as a whole has a widely-acknowledged problem with inclusivity. We know from the factual historical record that the English populace was not quite white as the driven snow in the way we are often led to believe, so - contrary to the claims of naysayers - it is not at all anachronistic for Aubrey to be a strong, respectable tradesman with Noble friends. I thought Vale did well to articulate Aubrey's humble beginnings and how the ladies of the Ton highlighted his race, without having it play too great a part in the rest of his story. His heritage was not the defining feature of his character or his interactions with others, without downplaying the impact it had on his experiences.

I was less keen on the repeated use of "making love" in its modern sense, however impressive the stamina of the paramour. I fear that I may have to resign myself to its creeping misuse, though in reality the telephone and motor car are both older than the sensual meaning of the phrase, and I doubt they would ever appear in a Regency! If it was simply anachronistic then I could get used to it, as it's such an evocative description for modern readers and listeners, but it had a distinct meaning of its own at the time; flattering someone, courting them, or otherwise being especially complimentary of them. As it is used both ways in historical romance and only one of them is correct, I find the misappropriated version irksome.

I laughed aloud at the description of a playful object, with "its base winking in the firelight" but, alas, dare not furnish you with the context in such polite company.

Vale's stories are always deeply character-driven. She does not neglect the setting, but there is always the sense that their surroundings recede a little as the couple's interest in each other grows. They are the stories of lovers who happen to live in the Regency era, rather than tales of Georgians who happen to be in love. Her characters are also very real; flawed, frustrated, afraid, overwhelmed, desperate, determined, and brave - but never perfect.

One of the things I especially enjoy about the Gentlemen Courtesans series, and What a Courtesan Wants in particular, is its focus upon male friendship. Historical romance often features a heroine and her gaggle of sisters, or a hero and his second, but it is rare to find a group of men who are invested in each other's lives; bound like brothers by time, loyalty, hardship, and trust. Though none of the individual relationships they have with each other is the same, there's an implacable sense of unity that underscores their interactions, even when they're at odds with one another. This is especially true of Aubrey and Benedict.

Aubrey is very paternalistic in his care of his friends, taking pains to check upon their well-being when they seem out of sorts. Having had the guardianship of his niece since he was barely past his majority, it is no surprise that he adopts a similarly parental attitude to the gentlemen close to him, particularly when they are estranged from their own families.

I also love the way Vale describes male desire, passion, and satiation. There is something so much more sensual about really being able to feel that yearning build and become an unstoppable crescendo. With the majority of historical romance novels championing the female experience - and thus the feminine perspective of events both within the bedroom and without - it is uncommon to have so much insight into both characters, and is one of the reasons I so enjoy Vale's writing.

In a testament to the fact that her books are not just bonk-buster bodice-rippers, my favourite quote from the series so far was one of simmering tenderness rather than scorching carnality:

"I love your mouth, even though you won't let me kiss you. I dream about it, you know, all the time. I have imagined kissing you so many times, and in so many ways. I do believe that if you ever let me touch my lips to yours, I'll go mad for wanting to try them all at once."

There were a few places in which tighter editing would have helped avoid several close repetitions, such as "I am certain it has been some time for you, so we will take our time." Nothing egregious, but sensual moments in particular benefit from careful editing to smooth the passage of the unfolding scene without stumbling. The narrator's skill and familiarity with Vale's writing meant that he handled the obstacles well, minimising their impact and reducing the potential to interrupt the flow.

As I have come to expect, the narrator, Darcy Stark, continued his good work on this series. Stark moves seamlessly from cool, clipped tones to softer and more sumptuous vocals, clearly differentiating not only the different characters and sexes but their moods and desires.

We're treated to glimpses of more depth in his voice in this book, which was very nice, though I sometimes have the feeling that the part he most revels in narrating is that of the snarky society columnist for The London Gossip.

As in previous novels, he still mispronounces "wont" as "won't" (instead of 'want'), but it's a very minor niggle. Such things are simply more noticeable in historicals because the language of the era - and Stark's crisp accent - is so precise.

I would recommend What A Courtesan Wants to everyone who enjoys dark Regency stories, and especially to those seeking historical romance with broader representation than is standard. It can be listened to as a standalone but is at its best as part of a wickedly entertaining series.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in the hope of an honest, unbiased review.

The titles in the Gentlemen Courtesans series so far, are:

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